Here’s the problem with Thomas Moran: he was a white nationalist.
Through his paintings, he promoted the notion of an American West of, by and for white people.
Secondly, his realist landscapes were purposefully dishonest. And not in the, “he moved a mountain peak to improve the composition” kind of way.
Moran willfully misled audiences and misrepresented the truth of what he saw to suit the propaganda of railroad and mining companies – he hid abuses done to the land by these industrialists. The land his paintings were glorifying.
Thirdly, his work aided and abetted erasure of the Indigenous inhabitants of what became the American West.
With another exhibition of Thomas Moran’s undeniably beautiful Western landscape paintings opening, this one at the National Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, Moran’s white nationalism, racism and his artistic lies are important to detail along with his artistic brilliance.
And there’s no mistaking that.
He may be America’s greatest landscape painter. His artworks fill museums in the West and throughout the nation. A Christie’s auction in May 2022 features numerous of his paintings, all priced mid-six figures to well over $1 million.
My criticism has nothing to do with his artistry. My criticism asks his admirers – of which I once considered myself – and the museum’s exalting his work, not to hide the truth about the artist the way the artist hid the truth about what he painted.
Follow the example set by the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth. Following its acquisition of a lost watercolor by Moran, Mount Superior, as viewed from Alta, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah (ca. 1879), it staged an exhibition around the painting and related works.
The presentation explained how Moran manipulated his landscapes. How he removed the ugliness of mining pits and the squalid towns they birthed from his paintings of Utah. His idyllic paintings of untrammeled, unpeopled cathedrals of nature were manipulations promoting Western tourism via rail.
Many of the scenes he depicted as realism no longer existed the way he observed them. He painted fantasies of the peaceful, wild, Western beauty he imagined, but never saw. Moran’s “realism” obscured reality.
He added Native Americans to his landscapes for romantic effect where he never personally observed them and removed them from other paintings where they belonged.
This is cultural erasure.
Moran cared little about the Indigenous people he depicted in his paintings. They were props. Less important than the canyons and waterfalls.
Perhaps the greatest example of Moran’s racism toward Native Americans comes from my hometown museum, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, FL, where a monumental Moran painting depicts Spanish colonizer Juan Ponce de León meeting with what would have been the Timucua people upon arriving in the “new world” near present day St. Augustine, FL.
Moran painted this imaginary scene featuring the Indigenous people of northeast Florida in the regalia of the Plains and Western Indians. While Moran did visit Florida, the Timucua were long gone by the time he came through. Instead of giving any thought to how Indigenous people there would live or dress – or researching it – he just substituted the Plains Indians he had observed “out West.” He paints the Timucua wearing large feather headdresses, not stopping to consider how absurd the idea of walking through the thick Florida brush in the tall, flowing garment would be.
Wall text at the Cummer calls this out.
The Timucua in Moran’s painting are accessories to the Spanish colonizers. The Spanish are the heroes, the Natives are the extras.
This painting is further dishonest in its representation of the Spanish as peaceful and magnanimous, omitting any suggestion of the violence, forced labor and Catholic proselytizing they visited upon the area’s inhabitants.
Yellowstone National Park at 150
“Scenes of Transcendent Beauty: Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone” at the National Museum of Wildlife Art continues promoting another Western and American white nationalist pursuit which Moran helped spread: the National Parks. Yellowstone in particular.
When Moran first visited the area which would become Yellowstone National Park, the year was 1871. Treaties had largely removed the once numerous Indigenous people from this ancestral homeland.
Upon seeing Yellowstone with his own eyes, Moran and his fellow explorers on the expedition struggled to describe the breathtaking scenes of “transcendent beauty.” This phrase comes directly from Moran’s own writings and serves as inspiration for the exhibit.
“The earlier descriptions of Yellowstone sounded like science fiction to anyone who lived in the east,” Tammi Hanawalt, Curator of Art at NMWA, says in a press release promoting the show. “By Moran returning from Yellowstone with his sketches and paintings, he made it real and helped people realize Yellowstone was a truly unique place that needed to be protected.”
Of course, anyone back east could have just asked a Native person about the area. They didn’t need convincing that it was special. America, however, needed to hear it from a white person.
By the time President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law on March 1, 1872, creating the park, Native people were nearly devoid from its 2.2-million-acre boundary, a development Moran would have surely applauded.
One band of Shoshone, the Tukudika, or Sheep Eaters, year-round residents, hung on in small numbers 10-plus years after the park’s formation.
As a result, what many refer to as “America’s Greatest Idea,” the National Parks, many Native people consider a “crime scene.” David Treuer, an Ojibwe author and historian, says the American West, “began with war but concluded with parks.”
Others consider America’s National Parks as sites of ethnic cleansing.
Evidence supporting that position proves difficult to deny.
Blackfeet pushed out at Glacier. Seminoles removed from Everglades.
I can find no mention of this history, or Moran’s white nationalism, or how his paintings supported Native erasure, in materials promoting “Scenes of Transcendent Beauty.” Moran’s watercolor field sketches from the expedition on view in the show don’t include any reference of Indigenous people.
While those materials and paintings are filled with notions of Yellowstone’s beauty and grandeur and majesty, what about robbery and massacre and genocide?
Increasingly, when I look at America’s National Parks, that’s what I see.
I also see Indigenous people. Efforts are being made in that direction.
As Yellowstone National Park – the nation’s first – celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, the park system is back in the spotlight. No less august a figure than Barak Obama narrates a new Netflix feature on the parks.
There is a place in art history and museums for Thomas Moran paintings in the same way there is a place in art history and museums for Paul Gauguin paintings. Gauguin was a child molester.
But that place need be accompanied by a frank and candid accounting of the artist’s views and actions – which were largely shared by white Americans at the time – and the impact of his work – warts and all.